One of my goals of 2019 was to improve the number of books I was reading.
Building on a non-existent habit that would usually see me finish one book a year, I finished 2019 with an additional 14 books under my belt – that’s a 1,500% increase (and a quick lesson in how vanity metrics can look far more impressive than they actually are!)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a data analyst, 2019 saw my reading choices veer heavily towards the world of science, data, and analytics.
Here are my top 3 ‘numbers-based’ reads of 2019:
Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Richard P. Feynman
This Nobel prize winning scientist is initially framed as a distinctly annoying individual.
It takes a while to get used to his direct confidence and tone of voice, yet what is irritating at first soon becomes more and more compelling the more time you spend with him.
By the end of the book, you come to truly appreciate the uniqueness of man who is so naturally inquisitive, so driven to understand why things work that he would follow ants around his bathtub with the same childlike glee that led him to new discoveries in science.
Yet amongst all the crazy stories, from safecracking at the Manhattan Project to composing drum beats for a series of ballets, what penetrates, again and again, is Feynman’s willingness to learn (often disparate) new things, practice incessantly, and follow the path of natural curiosity to its very limits.
Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
A mammoth reading task, but one filled with fascinating insights into the cognitive biases that we’re all guilty of when making decisions.
The main ‘characters’ of the book, as Kahneman calls them, are the two primary systems for thinking: the first an intuitive “fast” system, dealing with everyday decisions but error prone, the second an effortful “slow” cognitive churning, there to oversee and question the judgements of the first.
Kahneman explains how we naturally draw on solutions that use as little mental effort as possible and describes common scenarios for when we may not be making decisions rationally, where we may be biased in our thinking, and how poorly we compare losses and gains.
Each theory is clearly explained with a multitude of examples, making the thinking accessible to everyone no matter their background. My favourite example describes our bias for negativity dominance: “A single cockroach will do a lot to a bowl of cherries, yet a single cherry will have no effect on a bowl of cockroaches.”
The Goal (Theory of Constraints) – Eliyaha M. Goldratt
An informational and instructive read delivered as narrative-fiction. A supply chain manager is fighting to keep his manufacturing facility alive, taking insights from out of work activities and applying them to his process line with a single goal: to make more money.
The book guides you through the fundamentals of process line efficiency in interesting and relatable ways. For example, by comparing his operations to a group of scouts walking in a line at different speeds, the character describes the effect of production line items of varying speeds on the entire line output.
The key metrics that Goldratt uncovers through his narrative are throughput, inventory, and operational expense.
- Throughput, the rate at which the system generates money through sales,
- Inventory, the money invested in purchasing things it intends to sell, and
- Operational expense, all that is spent in order to turn inventory into throughput
And five focusing steps on improving supply chain, informing the answers on what to change, what to change to, and how to cause the change:
- Identify the constraint – where to focus improvement efforts
- Exploit/optimise the constraint
- Subordinate everything to the constraint
- Elevate the constraint
- Prevent inertia from becoming the constraint
Not a bad set of insights to take away from a business book which is in the strictest sense fictional!
Other interesting reads that didn’t quite make the cut (but are still great):
The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel
Exploring the science, history and culture behind the famous delayed gratification experiment.
Zero to One – Peter Thiel
Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel turns his ’viral’ lecture series into a short book of divisive and unconventional startup advice.
Never Split the Difference – Chris Voss
A former FBI hostage negotiator on the secrets and tactics of negotiation.
Let me know if you’ve read any of these already, what you thought, and what books you think I should be picking up in 2020.
About the author
Ashleigh’s work focuses on the performance of data analysis and production of statistical models to derive insights.
Ash has worked with start-ups, defence contractors, retailers and the NHS to derive value from data and solve big problems.